Far from home in China: conversations with migrant workers searching for opportunities in urban centers

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Quality Control Inspector Jiang Peng walks on scaffolding along the foundation of the water treatment facility.

While traveling through China recently, I had an opportunity to visit the Shanghai Urban Environment project in the emergent suburban district of Qingpu and spoke to a number of workers responsible for the implementation and completion of the project.

As with many infrastructure and urban development projects in China, the speed and magnitude can be astonishing, with hundreds of employees working around the clock to ensure timely completion. Work on the facility runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with construction workers from all over China contracted to work and live onsite until its completion in 2011. Once finished, it will improve water service, coverage, and waste water management in the region which will be essential for sustaining the increasing population and living standards.

I was curious about the lives of the migrant workers who often move thousands of kilometers away from their homes to urban centers such as Shanghai in search of employment opportunities. China is experiencing unprecedented urbanization with an estimated 1.5 million people that move from rural areas to urban ones each month and an urban population rate that has increased from 17.9% in 1978 to 46% in 2008 and is expected to continue increasing to 60% by 2020. Large urban centers are seen as beacons of opportunity as the average income levels in urban areas were  3.28 times higher than rural areas in 2006 and is especially evident when comparing relatively prosperous Shanghai where GDP per capita levels are almost 10 times higher than lesser developed provinces such as Guizhou.

Huge machinery is used to dig through the earth in order to install new water pipes and to retrofit existing ones.

I had very insightful conversations with the manager of labor, Chen Aixing, quality control supervisor Jiang Peng, and laborer He Jiming among many others. Their joint inspiration for working on the project was an interest in urban development and to make more money in order to uphold familial responsibilities and aspire to more prosperous futures. To them, moving to Shanghai offered the greatest opportunities for attaining these goals.

The elder Mr. Chen and Mr. He were very satisfied with their work; they said that conditions had improved over the years with the addition of enhanced safety equipment, higher pay, better food, and more opportunities due to economic growth. They also note that workers are entitled to performance bonuses and have free food and housing onsite while they are working.

The manager, Mr. Chen, only attained a 5th grade education and became a migrant worker at 16. He was extremely optimistic and said that his standard of living has increased immensely since leaving his home of Liyang in neighboring Jiangsu province in the 1980’s. I noticed while chatting and drinking tea with him in his office that it was air-conditioned, had a computer, and he had the latest model Samsung cell phone; unimaginable luxuries in his youth. He beamed with pride as he told me that his son had managed to become an engineering student at Shanghai’s prestigious  Science and Technology University and his daughter aspires to be an English teacher. Over the years, he has been able to save enough to build a beautiful home in his hometown and is looking forward to a retirement with a pension. “As long as my children are successful and my parents are taken care of, I can be at peace,” Chen concluded.

Mr. Jiang, the quality control supervisor was young and well educated with a debonair aura.  He studied accounting but grew tired of crunching numbers at a desk. According to Jiang, things have become more equal since he sees migrant workers willing to work harder than native Shanghai residents, creating a more equal urban environment. Jiang uses the money he earns for himself and he’s not sure if he will stay in the future as opportunities in his native town of Jiaohe in Jilin province are increasing. He noted that you must physically and mentally prepare yourself to work extremely hard. He plans on saving money, marrying, and then having children in the near future. “I believe people, irrespective of where they are from, share the same hopes and dreams.”

Employees take a break from their day to thank and toast the God of Earth for blessing their work.

Mr. He is a laborer from central China near Chongqing and said that workers are increasingly drawn to better food and pay. He says he works on the project to earn as much as possible for his children’s education. He was heartened to have a niece that was the first university graduate in the family, which provides an inspiration for his children to work hard and persevere in school.  Mr. He feels guilty being away from his wife as she has to take care of the children, which requires waking up early and going to bed late to accompany them in their coursework and extracurricular activities. “My motto in life is to work diligently and be a good person. We’re all in it together and our assignment is a joint effort.”

I was touched by the strength, openness, and thoughtfulness of their responses while chatting with them about their lives. In the face of strenuous challenges --working seven days a week, only going home once a year, and living 12 to a room-- the interviewees were proud and enthusiastic about the project and their contributions. Everyone exhibited such an incredibly strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility, a depth difficult to completely grasp through an outsider’s lens.

I walked away stunned, refreshed, and inspired to blaze my own trail with more gusto.


Joe Qian

External Affairs Officer

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